If you want to save me, save them with me; if you want to kill them, kill me with them.”
These are not words from the Bible, nor are they from a movie or novel, but the mouth of a brave man who is hailed for his dedication and courage to protect thousands of Tutsis who had sought his protection at Mukarange Catholic Parish during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Fr Jean Bosco Munyaneza, who was then serving parishioners at Mukarange Church in Kayonza District, accepted to die along Tutsis who had taken refuge there instead of leaving them at the mercy of the killers.
Survivors of the church killings describe his ways variously, with some describing him as “a real man of God,” “a hero,” “the brave priest” or “the man with a human heart,” among others.
However, whicheve description people evoke when talking of Munyaneza, what is clear is that they consider him as someone who courageously and dedicatedly fought for their survival until he paid the ultimate price on the sacrificial table.
A rare brave heart
During the genocide of Tutsis in 1994, many people remained nonchallant though not necessarily supporting the Genocide.
Some thought there was nothing they could do to stop the killers or save the targets, others were just cowed by fear that publicly standing against the killings could endanger their own lives.
So they opted to keep silent and remain inactive while their friends, neighbours or sometimes relatives were being hacked to death.
However, there were many others who stood against the killings and did everything in their capacity to save lives. Some of these courageous and humane men and women were killed alongside the people they were were trying to save.
Fr Munyaneza is one of them.
At the time of the Genocide, Munyaneza was considered as a ‘Hutu’ and thus was not the target of killers. Only his acts exposed him to death.
When mass killings erupted in his area early in April 1994, Tutsis fleeing from Gahini, Rukara, Nyamirama, Kabarondo, Kitazigurwa and other surrounding areas sought sanctuary at Mukarange Church.
Survivors say the desperate Tutsis knew Fr Munyaneza was an ardent opponent of the killings and had earlier expressed his opposition to the plan.
“He was a brave man, a real man of God. He was trusted because he had desisted from the hatred ideology,” survivor Jean Bosco Niyoyita, 34, says of him.
‘Kill me with them’
Fr Munyaneza knew by standing with Tutsis he had made a risky choice–he was undertaking a ‘lone’ struggle during a highly hostile period, but still chose to stand with the people he fondly called “my flock.”
On one occasion, around April 10, 1994, Fr Munyaneza is reported to have defied warnings that he should leave the church and the Tutsis there alone.
“I won’t abandon my flock. God has sent them to me and I can’t leave them,” Fr Munyaneza reportedly told the militia leaders, according to Didace Ndindabahizi, a survivor who was then aged 22 and was among those who had taken refuge at Mukarange Church.
Between April 11 and 14, major attacks were launched on the Tutsis sheltered at Mukarange parish. On April 12, Fr Munyaneza was again offered a chance to leave. And, again, he refused.
“If you want to save me, save them with me; if you want to kill them, kill me with them,” the reverand reportedly told the killers.
These words are probably his last.
Survivors say he was immediately shot and killed before the Tutsis who had sought his protection.
‘A hero who deserves recognition’
Survivor Niyoyita recalls that sad moment. He recalls the priest was hit by “three or four bullets.”
“He fell into the hands of a woman who stood close to him. The woman was also hit. He bled profusely but even remained defiant against killers and kept speaking for us. He kept his resolve until he breathed his last,” Niyoyita recalls.
In the following hours and next two days, more than 6,000 Tutsis were killed at the church.
Niyoyita says Fr Munyaneza showed the kind of love and courage you rarely find. He says he remembers him as someone who gave them the courage to live despite the looming death.
He constantly comforted people, telling us to never lose hope, Niyoyita recalls.
“His messages really kept us optimistic,” Niyoyita says.
In 2011, Munyaneza’s name featured on the list of 265 persons who were recognised by Ibuka, the umbrella organisation for survivors associations, for their efforts to protect Tutsis.
The persons were branded as Indakemwa (which loosely translates as ‘righteous people’).
But for survivors of Mukarange, that is not enough.
“He was helpless but with his love for humanity, he confronted death on our behalf. He is a real hero who deserves national recognition,” Niyoyita argues.
“His life and acts inspire us to love each other without any discrimination and to stand steadfast against the evil.”
Today, the body of Munyaneza lies in one of the unmarked graves at Mukarange memorial site among those he vainly attempted to protect.
His memory still lives on among survivors. Every year, on April 12, the survivors in the area gather to honour Fr Munyaneza and those who were killed with him at the church.
“We believe God granted him a special place in heaven,” said John Mugabo, the mayor of Kayonza District.